Interview with Jeremy Carrette

The University of Kent’s dean of Europe on Brexit, spirituality and chatting to Jarvis Cocker

April 4, 2019

Jeremy Carrette is professor of philosophy, religion and culture at the University of Kent and the institution’s dean for Europe, with responsibility for developing the university’s European engagement strategy, including oversight of its postgraduate centres on the Continent. He has written and edited a number of books, including Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion.

Where and when were you born?
Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire, in the curate’s parish house in 1965, the year my father was assistant priest in the parish. 

How has this shaped who you are?
Questions of philosophy, religion and psychology had always been part of my family background. My parents and grandparents gave me a sense of place, history, religion and social change. The Huguenot name ‘Carrette’ (from Irish and French ancestry), parental northern links to Manchester and Leeds, and the religious atmosphere around the rise of radical theologians demanding social change all gave a sense of historical urgency.

What is the benefit of having a dean for Europe?
Europe is a strategically important position for Kent because it brands itself as the UK’s European university: it has four European postgraduate centres in Brussels, Paris, Rome and Athens, and Kent is a “gateway” county to the European continent. You can see France from the White Cliffs of Dover. The European centres were established back in 1998, well before the Brexit challenges that have seen other UK institutions seek new partners in Europe.

How can UK universities maintain strong relationships with Europe?
By recognising that there is no knowledge, research or innovation – from medicine to literature – without relationships and networks; likewise, students are enhanced through international experiences. Europe is not limited to the European Union, and while being connected through the EU would be the easiest and most effective way to link higher education, new knowledge relationships and practical bilateral links will need to be established.

Do you ever get tired of talking about Brexit?
No, because the consequences for higher education matter too much.

Should universities be more international?
Universities are international entities by virtue of their educational mission, but what is sometimes missing is the vision and belief to invest in the internationalisation and willingness to establish structures that ensure the return on that investment. The great feature of Kent is that its location ensures its European and global outlook through a border and gateway position, but internationalisation is as much about values and curriculum as geography and mobility.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I came alive during my university career in a way that I never did at school. The world of ideas opened up to me and I found complete freedom in the ways to think differently. The John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester became the place of unimagined discoveries that changed me forever.

Have you had a eureka moment in your career?
Yes, discovering the disturbing connection between modern notions of “spirituality” and neoliberal capitalism, examined in my book with Richard King, Selling Spirituality. I realised that concerns of cultural traditions are undermined by the feel-good world of consumption that appropriated the term “spirituality”.

Your research is very interdisciplinary, how did that come about?
The study of religion, from its foundation in the late 19th century, is built on interdisciplinary thinking. There is often much territoriality within disciplines, but I tend to think that knowledge is more fluid and that we can see different things with a pluralistic understanding.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000-plus fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
I would go to university again because it changed how I think, see and experience the world. I will never forget discovering philosophers who questioned the basic assumptions of life and revealed the illusions and delusions of human beings as a species. As someone who took a loan for postgraduate study, I saw that there is always a difference between good debt and bad debt; education is good debt, because it expands possibilities and opens doors rather than limits them.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
The confusion of educational and market values, which remains the greatest threat to university life and undermines the public good of knowledge.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
I would put a cap on student numbers to reduce the destructive competition between universities and recognise the regional value of different places of learning.

What do you do for fun?
Running 10 kilometres in the countryside and visiting lighthouses along the Brittany coastline in France.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Aside from my now deceased father, Dag Hammarskjöld, the second secretary general of the United Nations, for the way he linked his public service to a profound ethical and personal commitment.

Your work has meant you have spent a great deal of time commuting on Eurostar; do you hate it now?
Aside from a few trips in the past 15 years, I have found it remains one of the most efficient and smooth rail journeys in Europe and is a great place to write and think. I confess I have kept a journal of my Eurostar travels. I once sat next to Jarvis Cocker and shared insights about William James’ philosophy on “life in the transitions” with him.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Trust your ability to find solutions to the most challenging life situations, because life is always bigger than the world you imagine. 


Carol Folt has been named the new president of the University of Southern California. Professor Folt, who will become USC’s first female leader in July, previously headed the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for six years before leaving in January. Rick Caruso, chair of USC’s board of trustees, said that it was “clear that USC has chosen a brilliant, principled leader with clarity of purpose and integrity to lead the university forward and upward”.

Steve Currall is to become the next president of the University of South Florida. Professor Currall, who is currently provost and vice-president for academic affairs at Southern Methodist University, will succeed Judy Genshaft, who has led the institution for 19 years. He has previously worked at several members of the Association of American Universities, a 60-strong group of research-intensive universities that USF aspires to join. “He understands where we want to go as a university and as a region, and he has the experience and knowledge to get us there,” said Brian Lamb, chair of the university’s board of trustees.

Andrew Thompson has been appointed professor of global imperial history at the University of Oxford. Professor Thompson, who will join Oxford in September and will also serve as a professorial fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, is currently executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Christoph Lindner is to become the new dean of the Bartlett, UCL’s global faculty of the built environment. Professor Lindner is currently dean of the College of Design at the University of Oregon and is renowned for his research on brutalist architecture and the rise of elevated parks in postindustrial cities.

Tracy Taylor is to become dean of Murdoch Business School. Professor Taylor, who will join the Perth university in October, was previously deputy dean at the University of Technology Sydney Business School.

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